Gazing at the stars and beyond with Dr. Salman Hameed

The idea that species have changed over the past 4.5 billion years of our planet is a fact of science, and natural selection is the accepted mechanism for this change.

Dr Salman Hameed is Charles Taylor Chair and Associate Professor of Integrated Science & Humanities in the School of Cognitive Science. He is also the director of Center for the Study of Science in Muslim Societies (SSiMS).  He holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from New Mexico State University at Las Cruces and a B.S. in physics and astronomy from the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

His primary research interest focuses on understanding the reception of science in the Muslim world and how Muslims view the relationship between science & religion. His other research interests include analyzing reconciliation efforts over sacred objects and places of astronomical importance. His past astronomy research focused on understanding star formation in spiral galaxies.

Dr Salman has taught courses on “Evolution, Islam, and modernity”, “Science in the Muslim world”, “Creating science fiction short films using real science” (with Dr. Jason Tor),  “Science & Religion: Biological evolution in the public sphere”, “Aliens: Close Encounters of a Multidisciplinary Kind” and “History and Philosophy of Science & Religion” (with Dr. Laura Sizer) at Hampshire College.

We got a chance to have a conversation with him during this lockdown. Following are parts of the conversation:

Abdullah: You were born and raised in Karachi. Let us know about your academics?

Dr. Salman: I did my Matric from Bai Virbaiji Soparivala Parsi High School (B.V.S.P) and then my Intermediate from D.J. Science College. I did not know I will be pursuing astronomy later on, but my interest was always towards the sciences. After my Intermediate, I got into N.E.D. Engineering University in Mechanical Engineering program. I only spent a month there before leaving for the State University of New York at Stony Brook. I was admitted into the Computer Science major, but I soon discovered that I was spending all my time in the Earth and Space Sciences Library.

To the consternation of my parents, by the end of my first year of undergraduate, I switched my major to astronomy and physics. It was tough, especially the physics part, but my love for astronomy encouraged me to accept this challenge. After my bachelor’s, I moved to New Mexico State University (NMSU) in Las Cruces for my Ph.D. The night sky in New Mexico is amazingly dark, and it was perfect for doing astronomy.

Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” was a huge source of inspiration for Dr. Salman
Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” was a huge source of inspiration for Dr. Salman

For my doctorate, I looked at how stars form in spiral galaxies. To do this, I was lucky to use some of the world’s best telescopes in the US, Chile, and Spain. It was awe-inspiring to visit these stunning places to explore questions about galaxies millions of light-years away. I should mention that when visiting these places, I would mostly be listening to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and his music in my mind is now inextricably tied to these places.

Abdullah: How did you get interested in Astronomy? 

Dr. Salman: I was always interested in staring up at the stars. But what reshaped my life was the airing of Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” on PTV in 1984. I was in 9th grade at the time. Before that, I did not know that one can go with astronomy as a profession. Just imagine: Working full time on your favorite hobby! At the end of the first episode, I had decided that I want to be an astronomer. And 17 years later (!) I got my Ph.D. I never got a chance to thank Carl Sagan as he died in 1996. But I did meet his widow, Ann Druyan, and conveyed my thanks to her.

Abdullah: You were among the pioneer astronomers who established Amateur astronomers’ society of Pakistan (Amstropak) in 1987. Let us know about its achievements? 

Dr.Salman: Today we have a thriving amateur astronomy scene in Pakistan. At the time, however, we starved even for basic astronomy information. This was the reason why a few of us – all under the age of 17 – formed an amateur astronomical society in Karachi. We started a newsletter that provided astronomy basics and hosted symposia on Mars, Supernova 1987A, and Voyager spacecraft’s encounter of Neptune. The symposium on Mars included a live teleconference by one of the leading Mars experts, Chris McKay. This was relatively special as this was a time well before the ubiquity of the internet and Skype chats. Apart from the general public, professors and students of Karachi University and the members of SUPARCO attended these symposia. Even though Amastropak ceased to exist in the mid-1990s, I hope that its existence has played at least a minor role in the later blossoming of amateur astronomy societies in Pakistan. 

Amstropak conference in 1988

Abdullah: In 1989 you moved to the US for higher studies, how was that experience? Would you like to share your thesis that triggered the research of star formation in spiral galaxies?

DR. Salman: This is a brief question, I will sum up it in two main things that I want to highlight. First, I learned quickly that you have to submit your homework on time. In Pakistan, we were used to cramming for exams at the end of the year. But in the undergraduate program at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, I realized that missed assignments even at the beginning of the semester can cost you your grade. This was a good lesson as deadlines are essential for telescope and grant proposals as well. You cannot submit a proposal even a second late. Secondly, because of graduating requirements, I was forced to take courses in sociology, art, film, etc. At that time, I resented these non-science classes, as I absolutely loved astronomy and felt that this was taking precious time away. However, some of these classes have had a huge impact in making me the person I am today and for that, I’m extremely grateful!

My PhD. thesis at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces focused on how stars form in spiral galaxies and I used telescopes in Chile, Spain, and of course the US. I was looking at particular types of galaxies that are defined by their “bulge” of old stars. Compared to other spiral galaxies, it was thought that these have relatively few new stars forming. However, my advisor and I suspected that in many cases their star formation may be hidden from view by this bulge of stars. We used a technique to subtract out the light from the old stars to reveal substantial star formation an insignificant number of these galaxies. I still had to explain why some of these galaxies are going through this high rate of star formation and I suspected that we are catching them in the act of cannibalizing small galaxies (our own Milky Way has also cannibalized many small galaxies over its history). I found the smoking gun by tracing some leftover signatures of such cannibalization using the Very Large Array radio telescope in New Mexico. I continued this work during my post-doctorate fellowship at Five College Astronomy Department (FCAD) in Massachusetts.

Abdullah: What were the causes behind your keen interest in the way young Muslim scientists view biological evolution and modern science? 

Dr.Salman: This has to do with encountering students in my astronomy classes who believed in UFOs. To me, this was surprising and fascinating. These were smart and educated students, and yet they believed in alien visitations. I started to get more interested in how social, political, and cultural factors shape our beliefs. Biological evolution is interesting from this perspective. The idea that species have changed over the past 4.5 billion years of our planet is a fact of science, and natural selection is the accepted mechanism for this change. I learned that in the 9th-grade biology textbook in Pakistan as well and did not see any conflict with religion. And yet, evolution is controversial in the US, but not in most Christian majority countries. In fact, in the US, political affiliation correlates with one’s acceptance or rejection of evolution.

While a lot of research has been done on evolution attitudes amongst Christians, very little research has done for Muslims. Given the diversity of Muslims in the world, from South Asia and Saudi Arabia to Albania, Senegal, and African-American Muslims in the US, it is a fascinating question. It would come as no surprise that there is no monolithic Muslim position on evolution. Even the word “evolution” means different things to different people. From a research perspective, I’m fascinated by the political, social, and historical factors that shape these responses.

Abdullah: Your primary research work focuses on understanding the reception of science in the Muslim world. During the current coronavirus pandemic, Muslim countries like Pakistan and Iran show a severe lack of scientific knowledge even for health and general precaution awareness from an epidemic. There have been problems enforcing lockdowns and a lack of understanding of concepts of social distancing and quarantine. What do you suggest Muslim countries should include in their educational curricula so that the general populations are more receptive to science rather than myths and conspiracies?

Dr. Salman: There are a couple of things to say here. This is not just a Muslim society’s problem. Look at the protests currently going on in the US against social distancing. The problem is that people are looking for certainty in an incredibly uncertain time. This is understandable. There are also real economic concerns for a large segment of the population who do not have the luxury of being isolated and work from home. What you need in this time is strong leadership that trusts science and has an underlying understanding of the process by which scientists are trying to understand Covid-19 and create its vaccine. It would be unfair to bring the Chancellor of Germany into the mix because she has a PhD. in quantum chemistry. But just look at the fantastic leadership shown by the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern. In a time of such global uncertainty, we need good leaders.

But what should be included in science curricula that can be helpful? I think the key would be to understand the methodology of science, including concepts like double-blind tests and the difference between causation and correlation. But most importantly, to appreciate uncertainty. Unlike the popular perception, science thrives when we don’t know the answer. Scientists (at least the good ones) are quite comfortable saying, “we don’t know.” After all, this is precisely the place where exciting research is done. It will be quite dull to work on a problem that has already been solved. Therefore, we get trained to appreciate uncertainty. But we also learn how to solve problems methodically and how to be critical of our results. It is these things in the curricula that can help the public understand and appreciate the process of science.

Dr. Salman also hosts astronomy video series on his YouTube channel, Kainaat Astronomy in Urdu.
Dr. Salman also hosts astronomy video series on his YouTube channel, Kainaat Astronomy in Urdu.

Abdullah: I have a keen interest in astronomy since my childhood, and I do believe that seeking knowledge of the heavens helps us to understand the grand mechanism of this universe and universal laws of nature. Do you think that pandemics like Bubonic plague, Spanish flu, and now COVID19 are part of nature’s grand plan to find the “survival of the fittest”?

Dr. Salman: If we go by that logic, then we should not take antibiotics or do any surgery that can save lives. After all, are we not interfering in nature by saving lives via medicine and technology? Second, we are part of nature. We cannot take ourselves out of nature. Whatever we do, by the very definition, would also be part of nature. All of this does not mean that we should not take care of the planet. Humans are the only species in the history that now can wipe out most species on Earth. Our destruction of Earth’s ecosystem can lead to a lot of misery and can potentially lead to our extinction as well.

Abdullah: How would you explain to a layman that Coronavirus is not a curse of Almighty?

Dr. Salman: I think the first thing would acknowledge why people would want to see this as a curse. This is a significant global tragedy, and humans wish to seek explanations and certainty. Unfortunately, a scientific explanation currently provides neither. Instead of a discussion of a ‘curse,’ I would turn to the issue of benefits to humanity. If we can find the vaccine and a cure, then that would save a large number of lives, and this is something consonant with the teachings of Islam and all other religions as well. Second, I would compare plagues to earthquakes. Traditionally earthquakes have been interpreted as ‘punishments’ for ‘sin’ as well. Some of this was brought up after the tragic 2005 earthquake in the northern regions of Pakistan that killed over 80,000 people. But humans now understand how the movement of continental plates causes these tremors. The location of earthquakes strikingly match the boundaries of these continental plates.

This particular knowledge saves thousands of lives each year, as buildings in many of these earthquake-prone areas are designed to withstand the shaking of the Earth. Sure enough, we cannot argue that the punishment from Almighty is only concentrated on people where continental plates meet and onto those countries that cannot afford earthquake-proof buildings? If we can argue that earthquakes are part of natural processes we can possibly extend that analogy to include Coronavirus as well. Not everyone will immediately change their minds and that is okay. But some (many?) probably will. We should not alienate or mock those who do not agree with this viewpoint as some will change their minds tomorrow.

Abdullah: After worldwide lockdown, NASA released very clear satellite images that showed decreasing levels of air pollution across the globe. These clear skies are an amazingly awesome chance not only for astronomers but for amateur stargazers too. Are there any fun ways astronomy lovers can spend their time indoors keeping themselves busy observing the cosmos?  How are you spending your time in this lockdown?

Dr. Salman: I think this is a fantastic opportunity to learn about the stars. Even a global lockdown cannot keep the stars out. You can use any basic app (such as Stellarium or Star Walk or Night Sky, etc.) about the location of planets and stars each evening and learn about the objects as well. Venus is bright in the evening sky, and Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn are putting up a show in early morning skies to the east. With your naked eye, you can spot a cluster of stars called the Pleiades and know that you are looking at a collection of a few hundred stars (you can only see the brightest seven with the naked eye) that are all relatively young and are located about 400 light-years away. Our Sun, a long time ago, formed in a cluster like the Pleiades. We do not know where the Sun’s siblings are today. But the Pleiades is a reminder of our own Sun’s youthful days. If interested, you can watch my video on how to identify stars and planets in the night sky: https://youtu.be/lcLA0WGv0nw.

Abdullah: You have been hosting astronomy video series on your channel, Kainaat Astronomy, in Urdu. What is the philosophy behind this initiative?

Dr. Salman: The primary purpose is to create curiosity about the universe in a language that is understood by most people in Pakistan. With the internet, you can find hundreds of videos on any topic. But your language makes a difference. The goal of these videos is not to lecture for a course. Instead, to inspire individuals to think and appreciate how we have come to know so much about our universe and how much more there is to know! Please come and visit Kainaat Astronomy in Urdu: https://www.youtube.com/KainaatAstronomyInUrdu

Also Read: Prof Dr. Sabieh Anwar on Molding the challenges of Online Education into Opportunities

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